Episode 54: Is This The Real Life? Is This Just ARG?
Elizabeth and Flourish interview Sean Stewart, ARG (alternate reality game) writer, Star Wars tie-in novelist, and Sherlock Holmes narrative video game creator. Topics covered include definitions of a variety of gaming terms, the collective intelligence of fans, and fannish conspiracy theories and their messy intersections with conspiracy theories around real-world events. (A note to listeners: we discuss several of these, including 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, and Sandy Hook.)
[00:00:00] As always, our intro music is “Awel,” by Stefsax.
[00:01:31] Sean Stewart’s website is here. Note that he is not the other Sean Stewart, who was on Celebrity Rehab.
[00:01:51] Our last episode was called “Stealth Fandom.”
[00:04:09] We got comments from a bunch of people and are slowly posting them. One is here!
[00:07:52] The fics Elizabeth is raving about are “Unaccommodated Man” and “The Peaceable Kingdom” verse by @septembriseur. Here’s one of the posts they wrote deconstructing the work (and, in turn, parts of the source material), as discussed.
[00:12:49] Sean’s Star Wars novel is Yoda: Dark Rendezvous.
[00:16:30] Elizabeth is talking about “Wizards, Warriors, and the Quest for LARP Insurance,” from Atlas Obscura.
[00:35:02] In looking up the Paul Is Dead situation, we found this amazing cover:
Flourish Klink: Hi Elizabeth!
Elizabeth Minkel: Hi Flourish.
FK: And welcome to Fansplaining, the podcast by, for and about fandom!
ELM: This is Episode 54 and you know, let’s mix things up a little and let’s let you say the title, because it’s your title, all you.
FK: [singing to the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody] “Is This The Real Life? Is This Just ARG?”
ELM: [laughing] Oh my God.
FK: I can’t say it without singing it really badly.
ELM: OK, it’s so much cheesier when you sing it than when you say it out loud. That was shocking to me how cheesy that was.
FK: [laughing] From my brain to yours.
ELM: Is this the real life? Is this just ARG? Question mark. There’s a question mark in the middle there too.
FK: I’m so delighted that you allowed me to name this episode, Elizabeth.
ELM: It really felt like, you know, you had an idea, you pitched it in our ideas meeting just now, I questioned you but you stuck to your guns…great. OK. ARGs. So our guest is Sean Stewart.
ELM: Who is a writer of some really interesting stuff. So do you want to talk about those things first, or should we talk about our last episode first?
FK: Let’s talk about our last episode first, and then we’ll talk about Sean, what he does, and also define the term “ARG” in case people don’t know.
ELM: OK. So last episode a lot of things happened, we embarrassed ourselves hardcore by talking about some really goofy things we’ve done in the past.
FK: And by the way, the goofy gifts have kept on coming because as a result of this episode so many people have written in and been like, “I too am a totally goofy nerd!” It’s been so wonderful.
ELM: Right. So that’s about stealth fandom, and as always, your stealth fandom experiences and thoughts and desires are…this is a safe space for them. You can send them to us and we will say “Cool!”
FK: Or alternately, “Cool and also that was us too!”
ELM: [laughs] Oh, you’re hoping more people are gonna write in and say they ate jerky under a table?
FK: So many people have written in and said that though. I’m truly shocked at how many people loved adventure lunch.
ELM: Why are you shocked?
FK: I don’t know, it just didn’t seem to me like a thing that other people I knew did.
ELM: It’s really good.
FK: And now it turns out that everybody did it.
ELM: It’s great.
FK: And I’m so glad. But we got other people responding to it too, because we also talked about other things, some of which were a little more controversial.
ELM: Right. So the two topics that we’ve talked about, one was about paying for fanart vs. paying for fic. This is a perennial question. We got some responses to that, I think.
FK: Yeah we did.
ELM: So the other question was about whether it’s OK to write a fanfiction of a fanfiction and my fault, I kind of also led us down the path of whether you should leave constructive criticism on fic, which is a minefield of a topic in fandom and I actively chose to take us there because I’m dumb.
FK: You’re not dumb. You just sometimes get carried away by the momentum of your thinking. And that’s OK. But in the process of getting carried away by that momentum, we talked about criticism and con-crit and feedback and we used a lot of different terms, all of which mean different things in rapid fire. And as I was writing the transcript, we had people write in and be like, either they felt like we hadn’t defined what those terms were very well, or responding and thinking we meant something other than what we meant, and then I did the transcript of the episode and was like, “Yeah, we didn’t really define any of our terms.” So we wanted to, we’re gonna publish some of those responses, but we also wanted to talk about what we meant by those terms.
ELM: And just to clarify, I thought we were gonna read the responses on the air, but we actually got more than I thought we would, and they were long and thoughtful. So I think it would be a better use of time if we published them so you could read them, as opposed to us reading them all out loud and then you not really…we will barely have time to even say anything, it’s just basically us reading out loud.
Also, I don’t know if this was about that or what, but someone left us a snippet of a voicemail that got cut off. Did you see this?
FK: Yeah, and it’s a mystery!
ELM: It was like 10 seconds and they were like “I don't know about the audio quality but I—”
FK: So if that was you please call us back!
ELM: Call us back, if you thought you were leaving us a voicemail and you began it by saying you weren’t sure how your audio quality was.
FK: It was fine, but you need to call back.
ELM: It sounded fine, we would like to know what you would like to say, encouraged to call back.
FK: OK. The definitions we wanted to get out there, though, because it seems like that’s important, and we wanted to actually say it on the air so more people could hear it.
ELM: OK, like what?
FK: The definition of “literary criticism” versus “con-crit.”
ELM: OK! So this is the one that I really wanted to clarify, and I think that this is not the first time that I have not been very clear on this and that I have been talking about something else from other people when we’re talking about criticism in fanfiction, but when I’m talking about criticism I’m talking about it in the sense of literary criticism, what you might have studied in English class. Where there are all these different schools of thought and different lenses and different methods through which people read literature, and it’s very rarely something that…you know, when I think of movie criticism online I often, and this is very simplistic, but I think of Siskel and Ebert. I think of good, bad. I think Rotten Tomatoes, actually, I don’t wanna say “does more damage,” but leads me more down that path.
FK: Cause things are either fresh or rotten.
ELM: Positive or bad, right. We literally both just put our hands up and down as we said those words, it was great. Whereas I think that, this has just been my experience and my study in English, but it’s very rare that you even have a real sense of what a critic thinks of a work of literature within that critique. Because they’re often using the lenses and the frame to say something else. Right?
FK: So when we were talking about fanfiction as works of criticism, it wasn’t necessarily like “Fuck off J.K. Rowling, you got this wrong and I want to fix it,” although sometimes it’s that. Right? It’s highlighting things in the text and reading the text in a particular way and showing off a reading of the text in a particular way.
ELM: Right. So that's why I will always stand by the idea that all fanfiction is critical, no matter what the project of your fanfiction is, and I’ve said this before, even crack is a critical response. Because unless you’re the author of the fic, or the author of the source material—in which case as I think we all have established you’re not writing fanfiction, you’re writing a sequel, or I don’t know what you’re doing. You will always inherently have a different set of lenses and perspectives with which you’ve read the text compared to the person who wrote it, and so your response will always have something of that within it. And even if you’re just saying “I love this and I wanna replicate it as much as I can,” even that to me is a critical point of view.
FK: Right. And we’re talking about that sort of cheek-by-jowl with talking about reviews in the more Siskel and Ebert sense of fanfic, and also criticism of fanfic in the literary sense of fanfic, and also constructive criticism of the type you give as feedback potentially, right?
ELM: I don’t think we were talking about literary criticism equivalents in fanfic. Maybe we were, because we were saying people don’t…there’s no real space to discuss fanworks the way you…OK we were talking about that, sorry.
FK: We totally did. We talked about all these things in really rapid succession, and it was super confusing, so we’re sorry.
ELM: Can you imagine writing a meta of a fanfic? I don't think that would go over well.
FK: I don’t know whether it would go over well or not. I wish that I could.
ELM: So here, obligatory Black Sails moment, there’s a ’verse I really love called “The Peaceable Kingdom.” The story is, the main story is called the “Unaccommodated Man.” The author is Septembriseur on Tumblr, but their AO3 name is…kvikindi? I would pronounce it that way. It begins with a Kv. [splutters] Anyway. Septembriseur, so Septembriseur was doing a thing recently where, you know, fic writers say “ask me anything you want about my fic,” or they’ll say, the kind of meme where they give a list and they say “A ask me this about my fic, B ask me this about my fic.” So people will be like “Answer T, F and G for X story!” Does that make sense, do you know these memes?
ELM: So Septembriseur had an open ask box about this fic, which is a very very complicated and I would say a literary sort of fanfic compared to, you know, in the grand scheme of things. And they’re writing the most fascinating analysis of their fic, and obviously it’s not meta because it’s their own text, it’s them talking about it, right. But it was even a critical conversation with themselves and with the show, and I was like, “AHH! This is so good.” And I really wish there was more of a space for that. But I don’t think that there is. Obviously that’s a person opening up that conversation with themselves, which is really different from me being like “Well, I have some thoughts about this story!”
We also are all coming from very very different places, and we’re all not working with the same sets of languages, and I’m not saying you speak Spanish and I speak English, I’m saying we genuinely are talking different languages often within fandom. …I love how I just gave examples of languages, but I mean metaphorical languages. You know what I’m saying?
FK: I know exactly what you’re saying.
ELM: This is really going off the rails here, this explanation.
FK: That’s OK. I think that your explanation is good and I think that it sheds a lot of light on our last episode, so I feel like we’ve…
ELM: Do you think that, when we’re talking about con-crit and feedback, these terms are messy and I don’t know…you and I might agree on a definition, but I genuinely don’t think fandom agrees on a definition. Does that mean the kind of, “I feel compelled to tell you how you need to improve your work, even though I don’t actually know”? I think I’ve compared it to sometimes when you’re in a writing workshop in school and someone gives you the stupidest…you’re like, “You clearly had nothing to say, but you were told you need to offer me some feedback.” You’ve experienced this, right?
FK: I have experienced this.
ELM: I mean, I’ve been that person on the other side too! I’m like “I don’t know, so I’m going to write something very pat right now.” And that’s useless and I’m gonna throw away the piece of paper.
FK: Yeah. “Work on your passive voice.”
ELM: “Show, don’t tell.”
FK: OK, it’s true, it’s true. Should we talk about something that is more pleasant than this? Because I’m actually kind of breaking out in hives thinking about this horrifying…
ELM: Are you saying this is just too controversial to talk about?
FK: No, I’m thinking about some of the horrible comments I’ve gotten on my work, not because I was mad at their insight, but because I was like…“Are you really gonna tell me to show-don’t-tell right now?” Maybe I needed to hear that. I don’t know.
ELM: Yeah Flourish, that’s the one thing I’d say about you: quit the passive voice. No, you know your biggest flaw, you use the word “a” instead of “an” before words that begin with vowels.
FK: In speech, not in writing!
ELM: That’s true, [laughing] but I only hear you speak!
FK: OK. Why don’t we talk about our guest, Sean, who fortunately has no opinions about any of these things? [ELM laughing]
ELM: OK, wait wait, before we get to Sean, thank you everybody who wrote in, by the way. They were such thoughtful responses, and hopefully everyone’s gonna be cool with us publishing them on our Tumblr and people can engage with them too.
ELM: All right. Sean.
FK: OK. So Sean Stewart is, we’re actually super lucky to have him on the podcast, because he’s kind of legendary for some people, but he is a science fiction and fantasy writer who was goin’ around doin’ his sci-fi and fantasy thing and then got tapped to become the writer on what would become the first ARG, or alternate reality game.
ELM: It’s “alternate,” not “altered”?
FK: It’s “alternate,” not “altered.” Basically, this is a game where you’re living in your regular life and then you find a thing on the internet where it’s like, a hook into the game, and you all of a sudden are on websites that are fictional websites but they seem like they could be real. And then you’re calling numbers that you find on these websites, and meeting up with people, and doing challenges, and piecing together a mystery through things that are sort of, feel like they’re in the real world.
ELM: Is it ever augmented reality game?
FK: Augmented reality is something different. I mean there could be augmented reality in it, but no.
ELM: People define “augmented reality” in interesting ways these days, as I’ve had to listen to people talking to VR a lot.
FK: That’s true, but no, in this…I mean, you could have augmented reality in your ARG, but ARG never means “augmented reality game.”
ELM: All right. So.
FK: I don’t think.
ELM: Wow. Don’t walk it back!
FK: He did that, he also wrote a Star Wars tie in novel, but actually I think most of what’s interesting is he was the writer on “The Beast” and then he did this thing called I Love Bees which was for Halo, the Halo video games, and worked on a Nine Inch Nails ARG, and has done all sorts of amazing things. Actually, I think he’s worked on augmented reality now, but I don’t think that’s what we’re gonna talk with him about.
ELM: OK. So, ARG, I need you to define some other terms that I think are related to this.
FK: RPG. OK. An RPG is a roleplaying game, so that can be a lot of different things, the classic one is Dungeons and Dragons, with the dice and the things on a table top, right? Or it can be like a LiveJournal RPG which people in fandom may be familiar with, where you’re on LiveJournal and you’re keeping diaries as though you’re a character, right.
ELM: So what’s the difference between the two of them?
FK: In one of them there are dice and you play it around a table with people in physical form, usually, and in the other one you’re writing diaries and it’s like you’re doing a collaborative work of fiction?
ELM: Oh my God Flourish, I meant what’s the difference between an ARG and an RPG. I love that you just restated what you just said and you gave me this look like “You fucking need this clarified? I literally just said these words.”
FK: [cracking up] I didn’t know! An ARG is a situation where you’ve got, the intention is that you sort of can imagine the fictional world bleeding into your real world, right? And usually RPGs are not like this.
ELM: Even a LiveJournal roleplaying thing where…?
FK: In a LiveJournal roleplaying thing you don’t suddenly have one of the characters who you and none of the other players control calling you on your cell phone telling you they need you to come to Boca Raton and bail them out of jail and then when you go to Boca Raton…because you have a chance to do this, I guess, I don’t know your life…then you discover at the jail there’s a present for you and you open it up and…you know, it’s not like that, right?
ELM: That’s a part of an ARG?
FK: It could be!
ELM: Boca Raton?
ELM: So is it ever true that in a fandom-y roleplaying game there is an actor…you know, like, I’ve never seen this in real life, I’ve literally only seen this on Frasier, but you know when they play a murder mystery at a party and one person is in charge? Does this happen in real life? I’m sure it does. Someone must have done it once, to make it a sitcom plot in every sitcom ever.
FK: This 100% happens in real life and it also is related to LARPing. That’s L-A-R-P. Which is “live action roleplaying.”
ELM: I’ve heard of LARPing.
FK: So the stereotype is that you go out to the woods with your friends and some tennis balls and you throw them at each other and you shout “MAGIC MISSILE, MAGIC MISSILE,” and that’s your magic missile.
ELM: And you gather up your crust of bread, your hard cheese and your jerky and you eat it under a table.
FK: You eat your adventure lunch!
ELM: You were LARPing! That’s a LARPing lunch.
FK: [laughing] Anyway, so yeah, LARPing grows out of RPGs. “What if instead of being around a table we went out to the woods and we did it for real!”
ELM: Wait. What’s a LAN party?
FK: Oh my God, we’re not talking about what a LAN party is right now, this has nothing to do with…
ELM: I always associate LAN parties with LARPing. I think it was because it was a similar crowd at my college.
FK: They genuinely have nothing to do with each other.
ELM: Boffing? Is that related to one of them?
FK: Yes. Boffing has a lot to do with LARPing.
ELM: It’s like soft jousting.
FK: That’s a delightful way to describe it! [ELM laughs] Just like soft jousting! Anyway, so yeah, so that’s LARPing, and that’s similar to an ARG because you’re physically engaged in it, but it’s different because you go home at the end of the weekend and you don’t have to eat adventure lunch. You can eat McDonald’s or whatever else you want. And you don’t have someone throwing Magic Missile at you.
ELM: Did you know that they have insurance for LARPing?
FK: I am not surprised.
ELM: There’s an interesting article, we should put it in the show notes. It’s about…it was actually a very good article of an industry understanding a fandom-y thing and being like, “Yeah, there’s a genuine risk here and we would like to insure you.” And they took the time to, as far as I could tell, took the time to understand what people did while they were LARPing.
FK: That’s wonderful, I love that.
ELM: They were like “Here are the type of injuries you could get! You might set yourself on fire, so these are the liabilities and protections we offer.” I thought it was great! A good article.
FK: I promise that no one’s going to set themselves on fire in this next conversation. Do you feel like you’re prepared to talk to Sean?
ELM: OK, let’s do it.
FK: OK! I think it’s time to welcome Sean Stewart to the podcast! Hi Sean!
Sean Stewart: Hi guys, thanks so much for having me!
ELM: Thank you for coming on!
FK: All right, so our traditional first question to every guest is: tell us about your fannishness.
SS: I think the first time I encountered fandom I didn’t even realize that's what I was doing. I got given the comprehensive, annotated Sherlock Holmes collection. And I don’t know if you know that, but it’s full of something that Sherlock people call the Great Game, which is basically you go through all the stories and then try to figure out how they could possibly be true. [ELM laughs] So it’s full of long conversations, for instance, proving that John Watson was married to three different women, all named Mary, who all died.
ELM: It’s true, that’s factually true.
FK: Somebody may be a Sherlockian in this conversation. Possibly two people.
ELM: No. I don’t identify that way. [FK laughs]
SS: So it sounds like Elizabeth is all over this. So this is the first time I had become aware of a community of people engaging in somebody else’s world. And of course, all literature is essentially fandom. Every writer ever has started by writing pastiches of other stuff. The first, I decided I was going to be a writer when I was seven-years-old. A few months later I wrote a letter to J.R.R. Tolkien asking if it would be OK if I could write something in his world, and I sent along a one page long, frankly paraphrase of the first page of The Hobbit as an example. Many years later, I realized that must have arrived, if anyone forwarded it to him, the month he died, so never did hear back. [FK and ELM gently meeping] It is the nature of art that we all start as fans and we all start writing fanfic. There’s no other way to do it.
FK: Oh my God, that is the purest thing.
ELM: We both had the look of “OH THE PURITY.” Purity? That’s maybe not the word I wanted. Yeah. That’s incredible.
FK: OK, so how did that lead you into your varied and storied career, which has involved writing a lot of different things including an ARG and Star Wars tie-in novel and also many of your own novels and probably lots of other things I’m forgetting…?
SS: So I had decided very early on that I was going to be a novelist. But I spent my teenage years, like many other people in my generation, playing roleplaying games. I didn’t play a lot of D&D because that’s the game that everyone played. [FK laughs] I was like the 16-year-old hipster RPGer who had to play games that you hadn’t heard of. And then in college, I put myself through school in part running LARPs and also writing and acting in murder mystery dinner theater. I had no idea that was going to become a critical life skill. [laughter]
But many years later in 2000, the fall of 2000, a guy named Jordan Weisman who is an infinitely creative game designer guy who owned the [inaudible] miniature company and a game company called FASA and created Crimson Skies and MechWarrior and Shadowrun and a bunch of other games, became the head of Microsoft Game Studio and got given the task of coming up—as he stepped into the job, he found that his bosses had spent many millions of dollars getting the game license for the Steven Spielberg film A.I. without having read the script.
Don’t know if you’ve seen A.I.…but I’m guessing if you did, you did not walk out of the theater saying “Oh my God, gotta play the game!” [laughter] Jordan, however, whose job it was to make back all that money, did read the script and had a long heartstopping moment and then came up with kind of a brilliant solution, which is: no one comes out of Schindler’s List saying “Oh my God, gotta play that!” But if you were to make the Second World War, you could have Schindler’s List sit in it, but you could also have a fighting game or an adventure game or a tactical strategy game also sit in it. So his thought was, “What if we were to build the world of A.I. and then build it out broadly enough that you could put the movie in it and it would sit there and make sense, but you could also put games in it and it would sit there and make sense?”
So Steven Spielberg and his team liked that idea, but they stipulated that they wanted a real writer creating whatever narrative was going on in that, not just some guy from Microsoft. And so they called up a reputable science fiction writer and said “Hey, would you do this?” And he said, “No, man, but I got a broke friend.” And that was me. [laughter] So Jordan called me up and said, “I haven’t read anything by you, but Neal Stephenson says you’re dope, and we have this project going,” and about ten minutes through that conversation he said, “By any chance do you know what a role playing game is?” And I said, “If you’re looking for someone who’s played Empire of the Petal Throne with the RuneQuest damage tables, that would be me.” [big laugh] Which was literally the secret handshake that started this entire second career. Cause as Jordan said, “We’re gonna make a thing that’s kind of like running a D&D campaign for three million of your closest friends.” And I was like, “Dude, I’ve done murder mystery dinner theater for 34-year-old uptight yuppie people, this will be easy!” OK, I didn’t say it would be easy. But I’ve been around that block of sort of interactive storytelling before.
FK: But was it easy? Because the thing that I always hear about alternate reality games is that they’re great when you plan them, and then you get a metric fuckton of fans turning up, and people who are way more into it than you could ever imagine, and then everything that you planned goes away because they’ve finished it in like 12 hours. Did that happen?
SS: Yep. Absolutely all of that happened.
ELM: Oh no!
SS: We planned 6 months of content and it was used up in 36 hours.
ELM: Oh my God.
SS: So yeah, there’s that.
FK: So this was for A.I. too, right? There wasn’t exactly a fan community for A.I., although I guess there was for Steven Spielberg. It was just people.
SS: Correct. It was just people. It started, the first fan community that found it were people on movie boards, and they weren’t Steven Spielberg fans, they were Steven Spielberg haters who were like “Oh my God, Spielberg is totally going to completely screw up this thing that would have been genius if Kubrick had done it.”
FK: [laughs] They weren’t wrong.
SS: Actually, I have a contradictory opinion about that!
SS: Because I read all the versions of the scripts. And my contrarian opinion is that the film as it was released in theaters is markedly less engaging and relatable than the penultimate version of the script, and it feels to me…and I have never talked to Spielberg about this, and he would be quite right to say “Who the hell are you anyway,” even though I have been to his house with all the parrots, which is another story.
SS: The final version of the film compared to the script attempted to strip out a lot of the Spielbergian warmth, and ends up in a slightly uncanny valley that is halfway between a Spielberg film and a Kubrick film, but if you’re Steven Spielberg, I’m not sure that trying to be Kubrick is where you should go, so I actually…I’m also, it must be said, a sentimental guy who likes movies about people that I like doing things I care about. So. I’m not the world’s biggest Kubrick fan emotionally anyway. So. There will be other takes on that, but.
ELM: I don’t remember A.I. at all. Flourish, do you remember it well?
FK: I remember it pretty well.
ELM: I think I saw it in a hotel room.
FK: I saw it in theaters, I remember it, and I remember in fact the hook for…
ELM: Was Haley Joel Osment in it?
ELM: I remember that part. That's all I remember.
FK: I remember the hook for “The Beast,” which is what they called the game, which is that there was a robot consultant, right? Robot…handler? Or something?
SS: On the poster for the film and in the trailers for the film there was a credit in the credit block for Janine Sulla, Sentient Machine Therapist. We basically had to wait until someone said, “What the hell is a Sentient Machine Therapist?” and typed “Janine Sulla” into Altavista, because this is how long ago this was.
ELM: That’s right. That’s right.
SS: Only the cool kids by invite had Google. So someone had to look up Janine Sulla, and then find a link to her page where she taught at the New York campus of Bangalore World University, and then they could start clicking around on links and find the other 70 departments of Bangalore World University and all of their pages, written by yours truly and a couple of other folks. So if you’ve ever spent time making up what would be on a college meteorology department page in 2142, I was looking for you 17 years ago!
ELM: That’s incredible. Wait, can you explain to me how you created what you thought would be 6 months worth of content and they blew through it in 36 hours?
SS: It turns out that a few thousand people can read a lot of stuff and come to a lot of conclusions very very fast.
ELM: So did they like, mete it out? If it were just one person playing the game, you would encounter it one by one, but instead a thousand people took small bits and compiled their knowledge?
SS: An ARG, yeah. An ARG in the classic format [laughs] is a real-time event. It’s Woodstock. It happens in real time and if you’re there, you’re there, and if you’re not you missed it. That’s a battle that I’ve been trying to reverse engineer for all the time since then, but “The Beast” was absolutely that.
FK: So you would log on and things would happen and then little bits more of information would come out once people had unlocked the next thing by, like, finding the right page or whatever.
FK: And then if people got their way through that then they would get the next thing and then…
SS: So you’d go through and you’d find Janine Sulla’s page, and among the things listed on it would be her phone number, and you would call her phone number and it would say “Hey, I’m out of town for a funeral for my friend Evan Chan, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” And then you would look up Evan Chan and funeral and then you would find a page, his local paper saying that he had died in a mysterious drowning, which was surprising because he was a pretty good swimmer. And then you’d start realizing that was not a natural death. And you’d be in a murder mystery dinner theater with three million people.
ELM: But they did that all way too quickly.
ELM: And took the fun out of it, right?
SS: No, it didn’t take the fun out if it, it’s just that we had to make a lot more fun really fast.
ELM: Oh wow.
SS: They thought that that was AWESOME. [ELM laughs] Obviously not all the story had played out yet, because things were going to happen. But a whole bunch of stuff that we were assuming it would take them a long time to discover and figure out got figured out really, really fast, including some things outside the game. For instance, a day and a half after they discovered the game, they were selling merchandise. And Jordan was like, “But we were gonna make merch…!” Too late. Fans are already there.
ELM: That’s incredible. We’re talking about the year 2000, right? Around then?
SS: 2001. Spring of 2001. So what you think of as the internet was a Yahoo message board. I went through a strange John the Baptist phase where I wandered around for a couple years saying “I have seen the future! I can try to describe it to you! It’s really important what’s gonna happen!” And I used this analogy, I grew up spending all my winters in northern Canada and all my summers in Texas—which, by the way, not the way to do that. And in Evanton where I grew up in the winter, there’s a real strong distinction between inside and outside. Cause in one of them you die, and the other one you live.
In the South it’s different. There’s a third place, called “the porch.” And when you’re on your porch, you’re in your house but you can talk to people on the street, and I spent three years saying, “In the future, everyone will live on the porch! Almost all human activity will happen on the porch!” And people were like, “Eh?” And then in 2004 I could finally say, “Facebook. That.”
FK: [laughing] All human activity will take place on Facebook.
ELM: That’s a wonderful analogy, that’s fascinating.
SS: Facebook and Twitter and YouTube all happened within two years of one another, a year-and-a-half of one another, because they were just making user-accessible platforms to enable what happened on “The Beast.” That’s all those are. They’re just better GUIs for wired connection between people who are acting as individuals, but inside…they’re private people acting in a social context. So the nature of this age of the world is dominated by these kind of shoaling behaviors, I call them, like fish. So live-tweeting the Oscars. All of that is just an ARG, but kind of turned into a mass-produced commodity activity.
FK: That’s really interesting to me, because I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the behaviors, like…I’m in One Direction fandom, as literally will surprise no one who listens to this podcast, right, the band One Direction, I love them, and…
ELM: Oh, are they a band?
FK: [laughing] ARE THEY A BAND. We can talk about pirates next, Elizabeth, don’t worry. But looking at some of the ways that people get really into 1D, and are really interested in finding out everything about the lives of the band members, tracking where they are, all this stuff, and then also looking for patterns in their lives. Patterns that are often not really there, because life doesn’t have patterns like this? Sorry 1D people, I don’t believe that we are getting messages through the color of people’s shirts. But we’re pattern-seeking animals, right?
ELM: Or treating their lives like a deliberate transmedia story. They’ll be like, “Well, he said this on Twitter, and then the other one posted this on Instagram, and here’s how they’re connected. It’s deliberate.” This is a very common thing.
SS: So first of all, we all learned this from modernism, right? Someone asked T.S. Eliot “How many times do you have to repeat something for it to become symbolically significant in a work of any length?” and he said “Twice.” Like, as soon as there’s a second symbol, that becomes signal rather than noise. And if you fought your way through “Prufrock: or Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, you have all the tools required to be an ARG fan, even though you didn’t know it. [all laugh]
But more to the point, ARGs started both, I don’t know, I have two different trains. In some senses both literally and sort of generatively they started with One Direction before they were One Direction, right? It's “Paul is dead.”
FK: OH, YOU’RE RIGHT! Wait, tell us about “Paul is dead” because that might not be an obvious reference to everybody who listens.
SS: It is an obvious reference, unless you’re, I don’t know, less than 50. Oof. [all laugh] Agh. That’s dispiriting. So the Beatles were the biggest band in the world, EVEN BIGGER THAN ONE DIRECTION.
ELM: It’s true, Flourish.
FK: Say it ain’t so!
ELM: Sorry to tell you.
SS: And there was increasingly a belief that Paul McCartney, there was a corner of the internet—even though there wasn’t an internet—which believed that Paul McCartney had actually died and that clues to this effect were hidden throughout the song lyrics, the fact that he had his eyes closed in the picture on the front of Abbey Road, and this fandom built up the belief that, in fact, if you decrypted the liner notes, the lyrics, whatever, you could find a phone number that if you called it would be Abbey Road Studios and if you called at the right time Ringo would pick up and give you the next clue. And there were people who were deeply into this.
And one of the people who was deeply into this was a summer camp counselor somewhere in Illinois in about 1975. And one of the kids who was the kid he explained this all to was Jordan Weisman. And Jordan said, because he is this guy, “Hey, you know, with the internet you could really do that for real! And people could follow it! So, let’s make ‘Paul is dead’ but for reals and we’ll do it for this movie A.I.” That is literally the genesis of ARGs.
FK: Holy shit, you are telling me that…what. OK. You just… [sputters] My mind just exploded.
ELM: It was also a very well constructed narrative, I’m very impressed. It was all leading up to that point. It was inevitable.
SS: To jump forward again to the role of pop music in developing this fan powered interactive art form, so we built another ARG for the Nine Inch Nails album Year Zero, which was a really fun task for me particularly because Trent Reznor, who is de facto Nine Inch Nails, for instance, scored The Social Network, because musicians have been scoring films for a hundred years. But it is a very rare writer who gets to score an album. And that’s what I got to do, I got to score with story and narrative the songs of Year Zero and build them into this ARG.
The famous story, or one of the most famous stories, from that is we had a piece of content that was audio, it was a three-and-a-half minute long piece—which you can still find on the web if you are so minded—that we’d cut. And we needed to create a way for fans to find it. So we put it on a server at the end of essentially a voicemail type of thing, so if you dialed a certain phone number you would hear this. And then we took the phone number and we took an unreleased Nine Inch Nails track and we used a spectrograph…I don’t know, if you see as we’re talking right now, you see these waveforms. Well, you can make sounds deliberately to make shapes inside the waveforms that all three of us are looking at right now. So we deliberately made noises so that they would make the shape of a phone number if you looked at the track under a spectrograph.
ELM: Wait, that’s incredible.
SS: So we took the song, the new Nine Inch Nails song, and then in the fadeout of the song we embedded the phone number that you could find on the spectrograph, and then we put that on a series of USB drives, and then we needed someone to distribute those USB drives. And Trent said, “How about me?” So we said, “That’s a great idea,” so he went and he took USB drives with this song and this phone number encrypted in it and put them on the urinals of the men’s room in that night’s venue, in Lisbon, Portugal.
The next day some guy came onto the Nine Inch Nails fan sites and said “So I was at this show last night…and I found like a USB stick…in the bathroom…and I put it in my computer…and I think there’s a new Nine Inch Nails song on it…?” And everyone said “Get outta town,” and then he uploaded it, and oh my God, there was a new Nine Inch Nails song! And then later someone else put it in the spectrograph, and they got this piece of content we’d created that was one of the most viral pieces of content ever to go on the internet.
This whole story was encapsulated in probably my favorite one liner from that whole thing: The writer from Rolling Stone told that whole shaggy-dog story and then said, “Now that’s what I call a leak.”
ELM: OH MY GOD. [helpless laughter] Wait.
FK: Thank you, Captain Dad Joke. Thank you.
ELM: That’s so good. OK. This is fascinating but it also makes me think, I mean, you just brought up One Direction and you also brought up the Beatles, two situations, I don’t know the word I'm looking for, where there is no secret, right? It’s people thinking that this kind of thing is happening. But it’s just people putting together clues and assuming there’s some kind of author. And I’m wondering if you think about that kind of thing, and then you compare it to the work you’ve done where…imagine if there was some sort of incredibly detailed interesting thing that One Direction was doing and leading people…I’m probably going to get angry letters from One Direction fans at this point.
But does that make sense? Do you know what I mean? Setting those two side-by-side, what you’re doing is what a lot of fans in certain fandoms hope is happening.
ELM: But it’s not. And they’re constructing the meaning in reverse.
SS: Can I give you the other example?
SS: Where it really has happened?
ELM: What do you mean it really has happened? What do you mean by that?
SS: That there are mysteries to decode and people have decoded them?
ELM: But mysteries you’ve written or mysteries IRL?
SS: IRL, and on a very grand scale.
ELM: Oh wow, yes, please tell me.
SS: We call this activity “science.” [ELM laughs] Think about it for a minute, I’m not actually being flip. I was asked to give a speech at Intel in 2003 and they said “What is the most interesting thing about this project you’ve created?” and I said, “I think the most interesting thing is actually of all the things we did, and we did a lot of crazy stuff, here is a code built with a simulated enigma machine from WWII that talks about a sentient, someone murdering sentient houses! There’s lots of crazy shit. But the most interesting was actually the composition of the audience. The fact that simultaneously all over the world people were contributing their skills and knowledge to solve this puzzle.” And I ended up saying, “Essentially we’ve recreated science in the age of Darwin, but as an entertainment medium.”
Because if you look at how science was done, in the age of Darwin, it was essentially a worldwide amateur activity in which a guy in the Galapagos islands would say “I found this odd tortoise and he has this life pattern,” and another person would write into the philosophical transactions and say, “Hey, I’ve been doing this experiment about the nature of oxygen in France!” and a third person would say, “I found a bone of what looks like a giant animal from millennia ago in this pit in Egypt.” Science itself is an act of connected disciplined amateur fandom trying to read back the most canonical of all possible texts, which is reality.
ELM: Like, I definitely…it’s interesting, I’m trying to tie it back to the idea, though…that doesn’t necessarily mean that your favorite television show has secret meaning. Right? If the Victorian way of doing science was to throw out all the knowledge and eventually—which is very different from the way science is done now, right, they weren’t doing controls and experiments in the same way…I mean, obviously they were doing experiments. But you know what I mean. I think that’s really different from, if there’s a television show and there actually is an author of that television show and there’s a finite amount of information and people coming at it and thinking…you can’t throw infinite combinations at it look for the truth, because there’s one truth of what’s written. That doesn’t mean there’s one truth of what’s interpreted, or the ways that you can feel about it, you know what I mean?
SS: Well, yes. I don’t disagree with you, but I would say—and you guys have seen some of the stuff I’ve talked about, so the next bit will not surprise you—but I do think first of all, people, creators, understand and anticipate fandom much better than they did, and many of them understand and want to enable that activity. Lost, J.J. Abrams has been on this a lot of times. He does broad thin stuff, but is very careful to leave enough hooks in it that people can get some resonance and try to at least pay off a couple of those things. I would argue…
So, skipping to a different kind of thesis, but if you read the Harry Potter books as they came out, one of the things you can track, I will assert, as both a novelist and someone whose daughter was a huge fan and getting into fandom, you can watch Rowling become aware that there is a such a thing as fandom and start figuring out how she is going to interact with that fandom. The last chapter of the last book is very clearly there for no reason but to give fans another generation to think about and work with. She is very clearly attempting to sow a field for their co-collaboration to continue. And I think that’s something that is very much a sign of this age. I don’t think anyone goes to make a show that looks like Lost anymore who doesn’t expect to do some of this extra work, some of this “Paul is dead” work on the side. You can’t pay it off the way we paid it off for A.I. It’s just too labor-intensive. To pay off that many things that relentlessly. But can you build in a couple of things? Sure you can.
FK: I think the disconnect I’m hearing between the two of you is I think Elizabeth is talking about things like people’s real lives. Right? For One Direction, they’re…
ELM: I wasn’t talking about people's real lives, Flourish, you know what I was talking about.
FK: I know what you were talking about too but…
ELM: I don’t wanna pinpoint this on one conspiracy theory or one…
FK: I’m just goin’ with the fandom I’m in because I feel fine pointing fingers at it. [laughs]
ELM: I know of certain fandoms, some of whom believe they are actually in an ARG—that the show that they’re really into has become that, and it’s like, I don’t know, it’s just…it’s where it intersects with conspiracy theory and where conspiracies can get very…upsetting to me.
SS: For sure.
FK: We could also talk about Lord of the Rings real person slash, right, where there was an idea that some of the cast members were secretly lovers and they were being prevented from coming out because of a conspiracy of people in Hollywood. And like…this was not the case.
ELM: Management! That old devil, management.
FK: Right! This is not the case and it’s also people’s real lives, and yet also it’s not like people don’t tease that sometimes, in the sense of “Aww, people really like it when I put my arm around my buddy!” You know? So I think it gets really sticky there, right?
SS: One of the things that happened that was really interesting, the largest fandom community for “The Beast,” for that first A.I. project, was called Cloudmakers. The game wound down in July of 2001, but people had made a lot of very close friends and the community continued to exist as a social network, you know, on momentum, for a long while afterwards. It was a very intense experience. People met and fell in love, got married, and invited me to their weddings.
ELM: Oh my God.
SS: Over the course of that. I get invited to weddings. Which is awesome.
ELM: Did you go?
SS: It was in England and I couldn’t quite swing the plane fare. [laughs]
ELM: That’s too bad, that would have been the best. You would have gotten to go around, tell everyone why you were there.
SS: Yeah, it would be awesome. If you cast your mind back historically, you will realize that 45 days after the show ended, a big event occurred, which was 9/11.
SS: And the first thing on Cloudmakers was a very vocal group of people saying, “Oh my God, we have to harness our superpowers and solve who did this.” And there was a very contentious and increasingly bitter dialogue between the people who said “We can do anything, we need to be putting this crowdsourcing genius to work to figure this out,” and other people saying “Dude, there is a big, big difference between a work of entertainment which has been designed as a puzzle for you to solve, and a real thing happening in the real world where you’d need access to information you can never have.”
One of the things that I got really used to, running ARGs, is watching the spread of disinformation. It’s a game of “Telephone” on steroids. So people think wrong things, and broadcast them very fast and they catch fire, and bloom, and it takes a long time for enough opposing facts to finally cut away at that. And I watched it happening with considerable horror in the week following the Boston Marathon bombing. I don’t know how closely you followed that…I followed it pretty closely, not only because…
ELM: Oh, Flourish was there.
FK: I was physically in Boston at the time.
FK: By great I mean horrifying.
SS: So. I began to follow on Twitter and the Reddit things they were surfacing up to Twitter, and the night that they started identifying Sunil Trepathi as a possible, I was sitting there telling Christine, “Oh my God, they’ve got the wrong guy,” because I was listening to the files they were uploading from the police scanner. I heard the person get the name wrong and then start spinning through this sort of wildfire of misinformation. And I had been through exactly that, exactly that experience on “The Beast.”
There was a point in which there was someone being taken to the bottom of the Statue of Liberty to be tortured. Don’t even ask. And it was a phone number you could find of the security guard at the Statue of Liberty. And if you phoned that phone number you got me in my garage [laughs] and I would talk to whoever the players were, and their job at that moment was to try to convince me to intervene. And I was reading the boards at the same time I was having these conversations, and I watched this one person become utterly convinced that we had had a conversation we had never had, and watched it take over the group-think of this thing and cost them hours and hours, and it followed the exact same pattern with the Boston Marathon thing. So I was watching this happen in real time feeling like, “I am the only guy in America who knows for a fact what is happening right now with this.”
ELM: That’s so…all right, that’s so interesting…going back to the 9/11 thing, though, it’s like, the fact that they were arguing about this, I think, kind of underscores exactly what I’m saying. And I’m not saying that thinking that two people that you like on a show are secretly in love is the same thing [laughs] as some of the more grim, the one that upsets me the most is the Sandy Hook truthers amongst IRL, which suggest that those children never existed. I find it really really fascinating the idea that…it makes me think of also, did you guys listen to Serial?
ELM: To the podcast?
SS: I have not.
ELM: But you’re familiar with it, I’m sure? Cause it…no? Not a radio guy?
SS: Somewhat, somewhat.
ELM: So Serial was really interesting. I don’t know if you remember this discourse, Flourish, because it was about a real case, and Reddit took off with it. And they were trying to solve the case as the show unfolded. And the show kind of plays with these, it kind of crosses some lines of journalistic ethics, because the journalist, the woman Sarah Koenig, who was doing this show, she kind of is inserting herself into the story a bit, she’s intervening, she’s very personally invested in a way that you’re not supposed to do as a journalist. And they were saying, there’s a Serial fandom, but is this a fandom? This is a man in jail and a girl is dead. It’s really, that one was complicated because it wasn’t, it was actually a show that you were listening to to be entertained. But you know what I mean? I just think these are messy spaces.
SS: Yeah! Well, how about the Salem witch trials, while we’re there? [ELM laughs] While we’re there. Right?
ELM: Well…I mean…what about the Salem witch trials?
SS: It’s an example of a similar form of a group gets an idea in its head and looks for evidence to support a conclusion. And the girls themselves are sort of half-in and half-out of the fandom? If you know what I mean?
SS: Can I tell you a funny story to sort of de-darkify?
ELM: To bring us away from terrorism and murder?
SS: Yeah. So. Here’s an example of, again, blurring the lines but going the other direction. “The Beast” was pretty influential. Every time you’d go to a show now, and you expect the characters will have, I don’t know, a Facebook page or a Twitter feed or whatever, but no one had done that before. And a lot of those tools and techniques were picked up and one of the shows that was created to capitalize on this vibe was called Push, Nevada. Push, Nevada was a show that was on, I think it was ABC, and there were installments every week but you were supposed to play along and look at extra clues on the side and if you could figure out the mystery the winner would get a million dollars.
So eventually the fandom for the show, highly incentivized, began to do what these groups do, and do a lot of research and get ahead. And sometimes they were, like, crazy unbelievably ahead of the storyline. It was like they were clairvoyant about what was gonna happen. So I talked to one of the players, I had conversations with a couple of the people who were working Push, Nevada because they’d been players on “The Beast” and we’re tight forever now. And I said, “So what the hell’s going on?” And he said “Oh, it’s easy. On Push, we live in LA! Everybody knows people who are actors. So we tell them to go in and audition for all the parts and we just ask them what was in the sides that they gave you to audition.”
ELM: Wait, that’s incredible.
SS: So they were sending all their actor friends to read all the pages for all the parts that might come up for the show and then putting together, “OK, so apparently there’s gonna be, I don’t know, a Chinese doctor in a couple of episodes,” cause that’s what they cast for, and here’s what his one page of dialogue was. So they were skeleton-finding episodes of the show before the show aired, by using their actor friends.
ELM: Did they get the million dollars?
SS: You know, I think they canceled the show halfway through because they didn’t get very good ratings. [laughter] Giving away a million dollars and no good ratings on TV, it’s tough.
ELM: Oh, man.
FK: Well, OK. I think that unfortunately, I think that on that sad note of there was no million dollars, the show was canceled…
ELM: Flourish, we haven’t even gotten to talk about the true nature of reality!
FK: Oh my God. Oh my God. [laughing] We’ve gotten way too deep already.
ELM: Not too deep. Just nice and deep.
FK: Nice and deep already. I think that we are just about running out of time now.
ELM: Do we want to ask a final question of like, what you’re working on right now? Do you wanna plug anything?
SS: Well, going all the way around again, as I told Flourish, I made a story detective Sherlock Holmes game.
FK: Which we, by the way, have not even talked about, although that was how I pitched you to Elizabeth.
SS: If you are interested in playing, think of it as a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are made of story instead of pictures. There’s a couple of Sherlock Holmes adventures of that kind of jigsaw-puzzle nature, and you can try one on the app store for free. Go to “Sherlock Holmes: The Last Breath” and download it and see if you enjoy it.
ELM: That sounds…oh my God I have so many questions though. You want me to wrap up on this?! I just feel like, I wonder what the response has been like. Seems like it’s the ur-mystery-solving fandom, right?
SS: It would be nice. This is something that I did with literally the money in my back pocket, so we made a pretty nice product because I made it with a bunch of people who really know what they’re doing, they used to be the casual games team at PopCap. But I didn’t have any money for marketing. So we basically showed it to, “Hey, ‘Baker Street Babes’! Would you look at this?” And a woman from the “Baker Street Babes” wrote a very nice review that said, “by far the best interactive storytelling game I have ever seen.”
ELM: Oh fantastic!
SS: Which was super nice. And now if I had $500,000 worth of marketing money, that would go some places! As it is [all laugh] I invite anyone who enjoys the game and would like to contribute $500,000 of marketing money. Feel free to write me care of my website. [hooting]
ELM: That was an incredible pitch. I’m sure this is gonna be the thing that turns it around.
FK: If anybody’s planning on doing that they should kick some cash to our podcast first.
ELM: You could donate maybe $3-a-month to us.
FK: And the rest to Sean, that's fine.
ELM: Yeah, the rest to you. That’s awesome! I actually wanna check it out. Even though I’m not a gamer, as we’ve established on this podcast, I am a reader of words!
SS: Yeah, it’s…it’s one of the things, it is for you. It depends on how not-a-gamer you are. If you are not a “Halo” gamer, please come to the tent. If you hate even doing a crossword puzzle or the equivalent, then I don’t know whether you’ll enjoy it or not. But it’s a pretty…
ELM: Does that make me a gamer? I definitely like doing crossword puzzles.
FK: You also play, isn’t it “Bejeweled” that you play all the time?
ELM: Fuck you, I play “Candy Crush.” [FK laugh] “Bejeweled”! Are you kidding me?
SS: So, you are indeed in fact a casual gamer. Many people who say they’re not gamers are like people who say they’re not science fiction people and then, “I love Star Wars!” So yeah, you’re playing “Candy Crush,” yes, you’re a gamer. You are in fact actually the modal gamer. The average gamer in terms of dollars contributed to the world is a young-to-middle-aged woman who plays casual games. That is the generic gamer.
ELM: Look, I don’t give “Candy Crush” any dollars. I need that on the record right now, I have never given them a dollar. [FK laughs]
SS: We have an entirely different conversation, which we’d also have to cut, about how the Catholic Church is the world’s most successful freemium game.
ELM: Oh my God, that’s incredible. OH NO, WE HAVE TO STOP, I WANNA TALK ABOUT ALL THESE THINGS.
SS: It’s free-to-play, right? And if just a few people…there are upgrades you can buy if you want to, and you can contribute, I don’t know, a whole Sistine Chapel if you feel so moved, and man, just takes a few whales and all of a sudden you become the dominant economic enterprise of the last 2000 years. Freemium: not broken.
ELM: That’s incredible.
SS: So yeah, you are my target audience.
ELM: Yeah, I’m gonna check it out. So why don’t I check it out and then I’ll talk about it on the podcast?
SS: Feel free!
ELM: OK, awesome. So everyone needs to tune in and listen to my reactions, as a person reluctant to call themselves a gamer, who enjoys words.
SS: You are the person for whom this is written.
ELM: Excellent. I feel so catered-to.
SS: So do you remember the story about the Nine Inch Nails spectrograph soundwave thing? So I had the idea for this, I woke up in the morning, I turned to my wife and said, “Oh my God, I just had an idea for a game your mother would like.” The mother-in-law bar has not been a feature of a lot of my work.
ELM: So you’re saying I'm your mother-in-law in this scenario, that’s great, thank you.
SS: I’m just saying…well, I’m already married, so the position is filled, but you know, I’ll keep you in mind. Send a résumé.
ELM: Thank you for your next mother-in-law. I appreciate it.
SS: Should I lose this one, you know…
ELM: Oh no!
SS: She could be left in a handbag at Charing Cross Station. [All laughing] It’s been known to happen before!
FK: Oh my God. You guys.
FK: This has been such a delightful conversation, really the best, and I cannot express how much I wish we had two more hours for you to drop knowledge and explode my mind and also Elizabeth’s.
ELM: It’s true. It’s true.
FK: Cause that’s happened a lot already, and I feel certain it could continue, but we have to go.
ELM: Yeah, we gotta go. Thank you so much. It was a delight.
SS: It was a real pleasure, thanks for having me on.
FK: All right. Bye!
FK: How great is Sean? How great is Sean?
ELM: The greatest.
FK: He didn’t even get to half the things!
ELM: You know what I’m disappointed about? Before we started recording he told us that his closest connection to fandom was his daughter was super into fandom, and that she wrote fanfiction of his Star Wars novel.
FK: [laughing] Please, Sean’s daughter, if you are listening to this, come on the podcast and talk to us, give us the dirt!
ELM: About writing fanfiction about your dad’s novel.
FK: Yeah, do it!
ELM: Incredible. Yes, please please come on. So good. So it’s interesting, though I mean, I think we only scratched the surface. We did, I mean, I was trying to lead us there but we got into some of my…what would you say…what’s the word, sensitive spots?
FK: Yeah. I’m sorry about that. I was…
ELM: No no no!
FK: I was kind of leading us there and then I was also kind of like “I’ll take the bullet for you! My fandom is shitty too!”
ELM: I didn’t finish the sentence! They’re not my sensitive spots in general, but what would you say in terms of…I’m trying to think of the right term. The spaces where conspiracy theories, where they lead out of the realm of “this is just for fun.”
ELM: And one of my problems with conspiracy theories in fandom is, I don’t actually believe there’s a hard line between those spaces, and regardless of whether you think there is, it’s pretty likely that if you are a for-fun conspiracy theorist in fandom, you’re having conversations with people who are taking it a little more seriously than you are, and that’s one of the things that I have a lot of trouble with. And I thought it was fascinating to even bring it into the realm of fandom-y conspiracy theories sitting side by side with, like, real conspiracy theories about terrorist attacks and things, right?
FK: Right, absolutely.
ELM: I don’t know, it’s a really complicated space.
FK: Yeah, I think so. But I think it was really good to talk about it, because I think this is one of the spaces where fandom bleeds into all those things, and…
ELM: Well, how would you think about the idea of…do you think that television plays, and television plays, an outsized role in giving people patterns to think that there’s a mystery to be solved in the world? Do you think that existed before? People attribute…Twin Peaks! They talk about Twin Peaks with this. Or Lost is a good one, too, people thinking that narrative is something to be solved rather than something to be experienced.
FK: To be honest, I think that it existed before, but I think that it gave large numbers of people the same narrative to circle around, just at the time that the internet showed up.
ELM: I think that’s a huge difference though.
FK: I think it’s likely that people would have found something to coalesce around, even if TV didn’t exist. I think people would have found a novel they would talk about or whatever, or “Paul is Dead.” People would have found something, but it happened to be TV and I think it is TV now.
ELM: The thing about TV that’s interesting is that TV inherently has the narrative structure there, right? As opposed to, like, you kind of have to create a narrative around “Paul is Dead,” you have to create a narrative around Larry Stylinson. You’re reading a text, but it's not one that’s…maybe it is being authored by someone. But it’s pretty likely that it’s not being authored and you’re kind of reverse-engineering a text. And that’s interesting, whereas in television, you have TV creators creating mysteries for you to solve. But not every show or every work of fiction is doing that and I feel like we have these patterns embedded where people feel like everything they see is something to solve, and that’s hard, because it’s not the only thing that TV’s doing.
FK: I don’t know that we’re gonna come to a conclusion on this, but I do think we should invite people to talk to us about it.
ELM: I would love to know people’s theories. When I say I’m not a huge fan of conspiracy theory fandom, I’m not trying to say anything…I’m not trying to pass judgment, is what I’m saying, and I hope that I've made that clear.
FK: No, I mean, and I’m not either by the way.
ELM: Yeah but I’m the one who makes low-key comments about conspiracy theories in fandom frequently. I don’t enjoy it as a practice, and so it’s just really not for me, but individual…no individual involved, I’m not saying that you’re, like, a bad fan or something. I just wanna make sure that’s been clearly spelled out.
FK: OK, I think it has been.
ELM: I trust you Flourish, I trust you.
FK: In that case…OK good! Good! I trust our listeners to understand as well. So OK, I think that in that case we should just remind everybody that we have a Patreon, patreon.com/fansplaining.
ELM: I think that pretty soon we’re gonna be starting our pledge drive.
FK: I think so too!
ELM: Now’s the time, it’s our one-year Patreon anniversary.
FK: It is! It’s been a year and we are right on the edge of Patreon glory. So.
ELM: There’s an edge of Patreon glory that we’re…?
FK: We’re hovering on our next $100 bump. We’re at $400-something and we’re almost to $500-a-month, which would be incredible because it would enable us to do a lot more things. There are some recurring costs that you can’t really do without enough money coming in recurringly, and that would be incredible.
ELM: As we said last time, even if you just have $1-a-month, that’s so valuable, and if you have more than that we wouldn’t say no.
FK: Yep! And we have, if you can’t do that, we also have our iTunes where you can review. We’ll put another link in the show notes, we’ve been doing that lately. And if you have anything to say to us, fansplaining.com, there’s a phone number there, we’ve also got firstname.lastname@example.org if you wanna send us an email, fansplaining on Twitter, Tumblr, you know the drill.
FK: Facebook! Instagram. Anyway.
ELM: Yeah, leave us a comment on Instagram, that’s exactly the way to tell us things.
FK: [laughs] NO. OK, Elizabeth.
FK: I’ll talk to you next time.
ELM: Could you sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” one more time?
ELM: [laughs] You started it!
FK: Good night, Elizabeth.
ELM: Good night, Flourish!
[Outro music, thank yous, and disclaimers]